Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Technics and Disputation: Where is Mind in Education?

How did we get from scholastic 'disputation' as a means of assessment to learning outcomes? The evolution from scholastic methods which instructed the art of disputation through the 'trivium' (grammar, logic, rhetoric) which was to be applied to the four domains of the quadrivium: arithmetic, music, astronomy, geometry was steadily critiqued, and eventually evolved into the domination of modern university curricula by specialist domain-specific knowledge. What originated as a method for inquiring about disciplinary phenomena for the purpose of the discovery of the mind became a method for applying the mind to the discovery of domain-specific knowledge. We have seen an inversion. From the critiques of Roger Bacon onwards, the need for more specialised scientific inquiry, and the consequent challenge to the doctrinal rigidity of medieval education as a 'way to God', presented a naturalistic inquiry which steadily divorced itself from mysticism in favour of the mastery of knowledge of scientific accomplishment. Yet for a long time, despite the inversion of the relation between mind and nature in education, something of the development and discovery of mind in the light of phenomena survived - but it is very much at risk from the processes of educational industrialisation.

Industrialisation has brought with it a new phase in the relation between mind and nature in education. Some aspects of specialist scientific inquiry still demand some awareness of mind where the pursuit of these disciplines is not particularly focused on the need to 'get a job' (think about the career aspirations of pure mathematicians, or cosmologists). But now, with the industrial emphasis on making education pay, and the "graduate premium" (COR! Wot a Bargain!), technical skill dominates. Indeed, following the computer revolution, scientific pursuit has increasingly become a matter of application of technical skill. Big data risks dwarfing the critical inquiry. Skills can be sold, learning outcomes as indexes of skill accomplishment measured, courses marketed, jobs coveted - but increasingly mind is out of the picture. Universities and their bosses become rich with their mass-produced education religion, but students and teachers become alienated.

Some students will have acquired something of the intellectual armoury which will mark them out in society. There is still a display among students of elite institutions of the rhetorical qualities of the ancient schoolmen: the ability to critically consider things and to engage in successful argumentative defence of their position: they tend to become politicians and lawyers. But these abilities have not necessarily been given to them by their elite schools (although they will have mixed with many others quite similar to them). Mostly, such skills have been bequeathed to them by their families. The after-dinner conversation, the mixing with important people, the confidence to take on authority and engage it. They may well be subjected to tedious regime of meeting learning outcomes like the rest of us, but in the end it will be their intellectual comportment which carries them into successful careers. But this aspect of 'having a mind' has become the mark of educational quality - the badge which grants entry to elite institutions.

What about everyone else? For them, there are only tedious learning outcomes marking the application of technical skill, and the acquisition of these alone is the means by which education is attained in the form of a certificate which may or may not grant access to the next step in the life-chance gamble. Of course learning outcomes and assessment criteria will encourage learners to "synthesize arguments" and "critically examine" - but these demands seem more vestigial of a former age than core to the business of the university in attracting students and pumping out graduates in the pursuit of its own viability.

We now have a society where the discovery of mind is only supported in families - either those of the privileged middle and upper classes, or of those on the radical left. When education becomes a private domain society has a problem. It is the education system's job, and government's responsibility, to compensate for the fact that not everyone comes from a family background that will support their development. At the moment, the education system rewards elite parents with a pat-on-the-back when little Jonny gets his 10 A*s. At a time when social mobility appears to be going in reverse despite rising educational attainment, we should be asking where the mind is in education. This is a systemic challenge, not a discipline-specific one. It is a testament to the mess we are in that the automatic response of the educators is to "create a module" to address the lack that their ever-more instrumentalised system continues to create - thereby creating more lack.

To put mind at the forefront of education is a structural intervention. It is to examine critically how institutions are governed, how they are funded, what expectations we have of them and how staff and students are supported. If there is a light on the horizon it is in the fact that mindless education is dangerous in ways which we are only beginning to discover in our dismal geo-politics. Broken promises, alienation, disempowerment and lack of freedom of expression only lead to tyranny and terror. 

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